2009-06-29 04:58:57.000 – Mike Carmon, Observer and Meteorologist
Cumulonimbus Cloud producing a Thunderstorm
The summit of Mt. Washington is quite an extreme place. As our website boasts, bitter cold, dense fog, heavy snow, and record winds are a regular thing up on the rock pile. Unfortunately, the ‘home of the world’s worst weather’ is a reputation that many believe applies solely to the winter months. This is certainly not the case, and I will use this shift week as an example.
Fog is more prevalent during the summer. We have reported fog every day this shift week. But what may be more telling is over the past five days, out of a possible 120 hours contained in those days, there was fog at some point during 95 of those hours. Meaning, there have only been 25 completely fog-free hours since Wednesday. Winds are no stranger to summer as well. Our highest gust (so far) this month was on June 1st, where we topped out around 87 mph. The all-time peak gust in the month of June was 136 mph back in 1941. July? 154 mph in 1996. So, what is the point of dispelling a somewhat common myth that Mt. Washington is not an extreme place in the summer time? Besides general education, knowing what is possible on the summit can help save your life. A lot of time is spent emphasizing the dangers of hiking this mountain in the winter months, but much less is said about the hazards that come with summertime.
I’ve already mentioned the fog and wind, which are perhaps the two most notorious. But don’t forget about the rain and lightning! If you’re not prepared, rain can be quite dangerous. Besides making the rocky trails slick and prime for spills and ankle-twisting, finding oneself drenched in improper clothing can still lead to hypothermia and the like, even if it is June, July or August! If you start your hike in shorts and a cotton t-shirt because it is a balmy 70 degrees at the base, be sure to have a change of clothing with you if you plan to venture above tree line. Even if it is 70 degrees and sunny at the base, the summit can simultaneously be ensconced in fog with temperatures in the 30s or 40s. A situation you do not want to find yourself in is to be caught out in drenched cotton clothing. That can leave you with quite a chill, which could in some cases lead to hypothermia (depending on temperatures of course). Always bring an extra pair of wool or synthetic long pants, a sweater or pile jacket, and extra socks (wool please, not cotton!). Jeans are never ideal for hiking, especially above tree line.
One of the biggest physical issues in summer is dehydration. Always be sure to carry plenty of water with you-much more than you think will be necessary. All of that sweat that pours out and acts to cool you down needs to be replaced! Dehydration can lead to a host of other health issues, which can put you in even more danger out on the trail.
Thunderstorms do occur on the summit during the summer as well. And besides the sudden onset of gusty winds, heavy bursts of rain, and hail that they can bring, lightning is their most deadly weapon. If one is above tree line, there isn’t much shelter to take cover from lightning. Being exposed anywhere during a lightning storm is a risky roll of the dice, not to mention being exposed atop the highest point around for hundreds of miles. The summit sees many strikes during the summer months, so it is not a smart place to be during a thunderstorm (if you do happen to find yourself on the summit during a thunderstorm, head inside immediately!). In general, if you are caught out above tree line during a lightning storm and cannot get to lower elevations or shelter, the best action to take is to squat down, which reduces your height as well as minimizes contact with the earth. If you have any metal on you, loose it!
The motto for hiking Mt. Washington in the summer should be the same as it is for the winter-always prepare for the worst. In the end, the biggest precaution is to be completely sure that you are physically capable of making the trip. If you plan to make a hike to the summit, but aren’t sure if you will be able to make it, don’t attempt it. Or at least be willing to turn around if you find yourself becoming exhausted on the way up. Remember-it’s not a one way trip! There are plenty of other mountain hikes in the area that provide wonderful scenery, but are much less taxing.
And after all of this, if you are prepared, and are capable, don’t be surprised if you aren’t greeted with breathtaking vistas once you have tackled the summit. Fog is very common in the summer months, as I alluded to earlier, so the visibility may not be more than a few hundred feet. The best bet is to always be flexible with your plans, as the weather is inherently unpredictable. Nevertheless, you should always check the forecast and be aware of any possible dangers, no matter how slight the chance. A hike to the summit of Mt. Washington will be extremely rewarding when done safely and smartly!
For more detailed information on all kinds of safety precautions and other general information, a good website to check out is hike safe.
Mike Carmon, Observer and Meteorologist